Herculean task

Text settings

In Competition No. 2400 you were invited to write a sonnet picturing one of Hercules’ labours.

I used the word ‘picturing’ with a purpose: I wanted you to be visual. I was thinking of the sonnets in Les Trophées (two describe vividly the Nemean and Stymphalian missions), written by José-Maria de Heredia, that gifted, Cuban-born (father Spanish Creole, mother Norman) Parnassian French poet whose cameo-like glimpses of the Classical world enchanted me early. Out of the 12 labours, easily the most popular (are you filthy-minded?) was the cleansing of the Augean stables, which would have defeated seven maids with seven mops, sweeping for half a year. The winners, printed below, get £25 each, and Michael Swan scoops £30.

Cerberus stood there snarling, acting tough,

A real performance. When he tried to fight
I blew down all six ears to call his bluff,
Brought him to heel, and headed for the light.
You should have seen his faces, at the sight
Of sunshine, flowers and rabbits. He went mad,
Charged round all day, slept on my bed all night.
I had a friend: the first I’d ever had.
He could not settle, though, with us above.
He pined for darkness. And I was afraid,
For when the fit comes I kill those I love,
As the gods know. A twelfth time, then, I paid:
I took him to the trail that leads below,
Kissed his three muzzles, wept, and let him go.
Michael Swan

My final challenge was the mutant thing.

It had — I couldn’t count the heads it had.
Its tail concluded in a potent sting.
A dog, yet not a dog. The news was bad.
I’d heard about its ways, the liquid fear
It raised in visitors, this brute near-clone
Of monstrous parents. Still, my task was clear:
To quell it with my body strength alone.
For preparation, I immersed my soul
In the Eleusinian Mysteries, until
No force could shake my vision of my goal,
No beast of Hades break my steadfast will.
And I was glad that, though I had to strive
To fight and win, I left my foe alive.
Basil Ransome-Davies

A noisome place: a bog, some trees, all bare,

And everywhere the putrid smell of death;
For this was where the Hydra had its lair,
Nine heads, each spitting poison on its breath.
Undaunted ever, Hercules attacked
And with his whirling club struck off a head,
Yet saw at once that, even as he hacked,
Where one had gone two heads had grown instead.
So then he turned and set ablaze the wood,
Took flaming boughs and made his weapon fire:
All heads but one were now destroyed for good;
The last he buried deep within the mire.
One battle won, but soon there would be more:
He dipped his arrows in the deadly gore.
W.J. Webster

Near Argos lived the Hydra with nine heads

That plagued the town of Lerna; no one dared
Approach the monster; people in their beds
Would scream in terror every time they heard
The serpent’s nightly hiss. Then Hercules
Undaunted took his sword and swiftly slew
Each poison-spitting head, but with cruel ease,
Whence one mouth was, there sprang another two.
When Iolaus, watching, took a brand
And burnt each bleeding stump, the Hydra fell;
The deathless head was buried deep in sand
With stones atop to mask the noxious smell.
But angered by Jove’s upstart son’s success,
Juno retrieved the head — and taught it chess.
Frank McDonald

When first I saw those cursed Stymphalian birds

So many and so huge, I felt despair.
They squatted on the trees like stinking herds
Of hogs with wings; their clamour filled the air.
No shouting and no beating shields with spears
Could stir a single one from its high seat,
And I began to have the faintest fears
That I might not achieve this latest feat.
But fair Athene saw I needed aid
And brought me down some magic castanets.
Though not so loud, the clatter that they made
Dislodged those creatures. While their silhouettes
Flew past the sun, I killed them, every one,
With my sling-shot. Another labour done.
Alanna Blake

Mops and buckets, shovels won’t assist,

If you’ve the mother of a bob-a-job —
Where goats and cows and sheep have shit or pissed
In shedloads, you won’t know which way to swab.
Our wide boy has a side bet: ten per cent
Of stock, if he can uncrud all the stables
And exorcise their tons of excrement:
What happens next becomes the stuff of fables.
So take two handy rivers (simple, really),
And dam or dig until they are diverted,
Their currents running through the dung, till clearly
The ordure shifts. The owner’s disconcerted,
But has to pay (there’s witness to the drama):
Our superhero’s now a dairy farmer.
Bill Greenwell

No. 2403: Bathos, not pathos

‘O Chatterton! how very sad thy fate!’ exclaimed Keats unfortunately. You are invited to supply a poem lamenting the fate of a famous person in which bathos is the keynote. Maximum 16 lines. Entries to ‘Competition No. 2403’ by 28 July.